House JJDPA Bill: Probably Not in Time, But A Notable Step

For the first time in many moons, the House Education and the Workforce Committee has acted on a bill to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). It might be too late to mean something for this year, but it is a necessary step forward if JJDPA is ever going to see an update.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), one of the bill’s co-sponsors and the main force behind this bill finally getting marked up today, said he believes it can get through both chambers and to the president’s desk “in just a few weeks.”

“I can’t even add up how many times Bobby Scott has asked, ‘When are we gonna do juvenile justice?'” quipped Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), at the outset of today’s markup. “We’re here, Bobby.”

So what of Scott’s confidence, is that legit? There is talk that Kline and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) might try to whisk the bill through the House “on suspension,” which means they’d need a supermajority to get it done. It’s not inconceivable, considering that this summer a much-larger bipartisan reform of child welfare financing sailed through the House.

But that still leaves the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee has dutifully continued to pass JJDPA reauthorizations to no avail. Last year’s attempt was stalled when bill leaders sought unanimous consent for the bill and were held up by a single objection by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

Cotton’s problem with the bill is its most aggressive reform of JJDPA, to phase out over three years the valid court order exception (VCO), a federal loophole that permits the detention or incarceration of status offenders. There has been no indication that Cotton is ready to back off his problem with that key part of the bill, so presumably an attempt to fast-track in the Senate is not possible.

More problematic than that: the Senate might not do much anyway this year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that the Senate will probably limit its pre-election schedule to the budget, which means the only time for other legislating will occur in the always-weird lame duck period between the election of our new president and Inauguration Day.

If both chambers can’t move JJDPA along this year, it’s back to the drawing board in January. All pending legislation is wiped out, and will need to be reintroduced.

But just the fact that Education and the Workforce acted at all is a good sign for JJDPA to eventually see a reauthorization. The previous chairman, former Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), vowed several times to move JJDPA and never so much as introduced a bill.

Kline appeared to be even less interested than that after taking over the committee in 2010. When Youth Services Insider pressed his office last year for an answer on whether he even supported the idea of reauthorizing JJDPA, we got nothing but vague responses.

And while the committee was idling on JJPDA, House appropriators were consistently zeroing it out of federal spending. With only the support of Senate appropriators, overall federal spending on juvenile justice plummeted since 2010.

By all accounts, Kline has a good working relationship with ranking member Scott, and the two recently visited the Boys Town alternatives to incarceration program in Washington, D.C. He appears to have embraced the spirit of updating JJDPA.

The reauthorization, along with other recent education bills, are about “putting people on pathway to success,” Kline said at today’s hearing. “And that’s why we’re here today.”

But Kline’s tenure as chair of Education and the Workforce will end in January. If JJDPA doesn’t get done before that, it will be a new committee chair that decides if the bill gets back into circulation.

Politico reported this week that Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.)  is “in line” to succeed Kline. Foxx was at today’s markup, and did vote for the bill.

The bill is entitled the Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act of 2016. It is co-sponsored by Scott, Kline and four other members of the committee: Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), Susan Davis (D-Calif.) and Buddy Carter (R-Ga.).

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.